PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Time flies when ... well, when pennants don't.

Carlos Beltran began his fifth Mets Spring Training camp Tuesday, and none of the first four has led to even the penultimate prize of National League awards.

The lack of championships during Beltran's tenure is widely recognized and well-documented. But that Beltran already has spent four seasons as the Mets' center fielder comes as a surprise to some, not the least of whom is skipper Jerry Manuel.

"What is this, his third year?" the Mets manager said Tuesday. A tone of incredulousness developed when he said: "Last year was his fourth year. Really?"

Manuel and Beltran joined the Mets almost simultaneously between the 2004 and '05 seasons.

"Well, he's got to win one time," Manuel said. "He's got to win. I think he's going to win."

No one is suggesting time is running out on Beltran with the Mets. But more than half the time covered by his seven-year contract has passed, and the legacy that exists at this point is mostly about frustration, disappointment, many home runs, a few brilliant catches, a softly spoken prediction, sore knees, one grotesque collision and one called third strike.

Now Beltran is poised for something better, and his manager speaks -- if somewhat vaguely -- about a big year, saying: "He's got to win."

Beltran arrived, dressed and joined his colleagues late Tuesday morning, looking characteristically trim and, he said, feeling chipper. The condition of his legs, more than 16 months removed from "clean out" surgeries, no longer is an issue. Indeed, Beltran said his legs feel "200 percent better." Presumably, each one is 100 percent improved. And, as he was each of the past four years, Beltran is "looking forward to seeing what we can do."

Manuel's proposal to bat him second was well-received.

"You hit in a particular part of the lineup only once -- in the first inning," Beltran said. "After that, you're going to be in different situations. I don't care. When you're good, you can be in any hole."

And Beltran reacted with a smirk and a question: "Did he say that?" -- in regards to Francisco Rodriguez quietly stating, "We're the team to beat."

"I agree with him," Beltran said.

It was Beltran who thought a similar proclamation was needed a year ago.

"I feel that we have a good team this year," Beltran said. "[The Phillies] made some acquisitions. I think their team is also better. But I do believe our team is better. That's how I feel."

Beltran sidestepped -- for the most part -- the "choke artists" comments from Cole Hamels.

"The only thing I know is that he will be watched," Beltran said.